The Myth of Heimdall, the Norse god who stood guard at the entrance to Asgard
Ask any Marvel comic book or movie fan who Heimdall is and he/she will be able to give a complete breakdown of the character portrayed by English actor Idris Elba. However, in the original Norse myths, the figure Heimdall is portrayed slightly different from the ones we see on screen.
Who is Heimdall? And what is his role in the Norse pantheon of gods?
World History Edu takes a quick look at the Origins, symbols and power of Heimdall.
Who is Heimdall?
Heimdall, also known as Heimdallr, is revered in Norse mythology as one of the most reliable and trustworthy deities. It was believed that he stands guard at the entrance of Asgard, protecting the realm of the Norse gods from malicious agents and invaders.
From his watchtower at the Himinbjörg (also known as the sky cliffs), Heimdall could see everything that took place in Asgard. It was also said that his watchtower sat on top of the Bifrost – a rainbow bridge that leads into Asgard.
Birth story and family
In Norse myths, Heimdall is described as the son of Odin, the Allfather god and chief of the Aesir gods, and the Nine Maiden Sisters or the Nine Mothers.
Heimdall’s mothers, who are also known as the Nine Undines or the Nine Waves, are the the maiden daughters of Aegir, the powerful Norse sea god. After one of the sisters fell in love with Odin, the remaining sisters decided to do same and lie with Odin in the same bed. This came in spite of Aegir’s strong opposition to his daughters’ affair with an unscrupulous character as Odin.
According to a number of verses in Old Norse poetry, Heimdall’s mothers, the Nine Maiden Sisters, were said to be very beautiful but terrible. This explains why their names were sometimes used to represent the torments of the ocean.
Personality and abilities
In the myths, Heimdall is described as an ever vigilant deity, whose keen and trustworthy personality made him a very endearing deity across the Nine Worlds.
He possessed very sharp hearing and eagle-like vision that allowed him to spot the faintest thing from several hundreds of miles away. It’s also been said that he has the ability to see and hear everything that took place across the Nine Worlds. He could literally hear a pin drop in every nook and cranny of those realms. In the myths, Heimdall could hear blades of grass growing.
What makes Heimdall even more interesting is that he could go several nights glued to his watch post, staying on the look-out for any being or creature that tried to sneak into Asgard without the gods’ permission.
In addition to his keen eyesight and hearing, he had the ability to operate in the space-time plane, making him have the power of foreknowledge.
Those abilities of his made him a formidable gatekeeper of Asgard. Hardly was there anything that could go past the watchful gaze of Heimdall, as he could see more than hundred leagues away into the distance.
Heimdall always kept his horn, Gjallarhorn, by his side, ever ready to sound it the moment intruders come toward Asgard. As a matter of fact, he is commonly depicted either holding or blowing the horn. When blown, the horn, which went by a number of names, including the “Resounding Horn”, could be heard in all the Nine Realms.
Stories of this nature demonstrate just how powerful Heimdall is in the Norse pantheon.
Meaning of his name
When translated to English, Heimdall’s name comes out as “The one who illuminates the Earth”. It’s also known that Heimdall was sometimes called Mardöll – an appellation that was often used for Vanir goddesses like Freyja, the goddess of fertility, beauty, and sex.
In some Old Norse poetry, he’s been referred to as Vindhlér, Hallinskiði or Gullintanni. The latter name has been translated to mean “the one with the golden teeth”. On the other hand, Vindhlér means “the one who protects against the wind”.
Heimdallr’s name also appears in six poems in the Poetic Edda – Völuspá, Hrafnagaldr Óðins, Rígsþula, Lokasenna, Þrymskviða, and Grímnismál.
Place of residence
From his watchtower at the Himinbjörg (also known as the sky cliffs), Heimdall could see everything that took place in Asgard. It was believed that his watchtower sat on top of the Bifrost – a rainbow bridge that leads into Asgard. His place of residence – Himinbjörg – was also known as “Heaven-fells”.
Appearance and symbols
He is generally portrayed with his favorite item, the famed horn Gjallarhorn. As stated above he uses this horn to alert the Aesir gods of a breach in the Asgard’s boundaries.
Heimdall also wields a powerful sword that he uses to fight against anyone that tried to make it past him at the entrance to Asgard.
In the Prose Edda, the 13th century book written by Icelandic poet and statesman Snorri Sturluson, Heimdall has golden teeth and a powerful stead known as Gulltoppr (Gold Top).
In the book Grimnismál of the Poetic Edda, its stated that Heimdall has an appreciation for drinking fine mead.
There is a 9th or 10th century Gosforth Cross in Cubria, England, that shows a sword-and-horn-wielding Heimdall standing in front of two giant creatures.
Importance of Heimdall in Norse Mythology
Heimdall plays a very important role in the Norse pantheon as he is the one who keeps the Bifrost Bridge from being overrun by invaders. The Bifrost is a mythical bridge that links Asgard, the realm of Norse gods, with Midgard (the realm of mankind).
In some accounts, Heimdall is praised for establishing the social classes or structure among humans. He did this by lying with a number of humans, resulting in the formation of different classes among the human population. In the Völuspá, one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, he is described as the father of humans. This explains why men in some Nordic tribes were called the sons of Heimdall.
When Ragnarok begins, Heimdall is fated to sound his powerful horn, the Gjallarhorn. This will alert all the Norse gods of their impending doom and the destruction of the world as we know it.
Heimdall helps Thor retrieve his hammer
In the poem Þrymskviða of the Poetic Edda, Heimdall is credited with coming up with the idea that helped Thor, the Norse god of thunder, get back his stolen hammer, Mjöllnir, which had been stolen by the jötnar (troll-like creatures and giants in Norse mythology). The giants demanded that the beautiful Vanir goddess Freyja be given to them in exchange for Thor’s hammer.
Since there was no way that the Norse gods would let the giants have Freyja, Heimdall suggested to Thor that he dress like Freyja and then proceed to trick Þrymr, the king of the jötnar, into giving back Thor’s hammer. Thor even borrows Brísingamen, the famous necklace of Freyja, in order to make his disguise have a more convincing look.
Heimdall’s contending with Loki
Like many other Norse gods, Heimdallr had a number of altercations with the trickster god Loki. For example, In the poem Lokasenna (in the Poetic Edda), Loki is caught up in a serious exchange of insults (i.e. flyting) with the Norse gods. He throws a number of damning accusations at the gods, incurring the gods’ complete displeasure. Loki even ridiculed Heimdallr for being just a mere watchman of Asgard, adding that Heimdall is fated to have a muddy back and a very appalling life.
In Húsdrápa, a poem in the Prose Edda, the goddess Freyja recruits Heimdallr to find her missing necklace Brísingamen. Apparently, the trickster god Loki had stolen the necklace. To evade capture, Loki transformed himself into a seal, at which point Heimdallr does same, and the two seals do battle. In the end Heimdall comes out victorious and returns Brísingamen to Freyja. In Skáldskaparmál, the second part of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Loki and Heimdall are described as “Thief of Brísingamen” and “Seeker of Freyja’s Necklace” respectively.
Come Ragnarok – the “Doom of the gods” – Heimdall and Loki are destined to have a go at each other. The two Norse gods end up killing each other.
Heimdall as Rígr, the wise one
In the poem Rígsþula, Heimdallr, a member of the Æsir gods, embarks on a long journey which sees him roam the seaside. While on his journey he goes by the name Rigr, perhaps as a disguise. He interacts with and dines with many humans. In addition to offering very good pieces of advice to the people he meets on his way, he also sleeps with the wives of the men, who then get pregnant. It’s believed that the first social classes of humankind emerged from the children that he fathered with those women.
Heimdall also went ahead to impart the knowledge of the runes to one of those children in . The runes are letters and alphabets of many Germanic languages. The child would later do well for himself and become a very powerful war chieftan and father many children by many beautiful women.
Epithets that Heimdall went by
A guardian of the Aesir gods, Heimdall went by a number of epithets, including “Guardian of the Bifrost” or “Protector of the Aesir tribe of gods”. In some of the poems, he was called “the Most Shining”, the Whitest, Brightest of the Æsir, and Warder of the Norse Gods.
Other known epithets of Heimdall are Most Glittering, The White God, Son of Nine Mothers, Guardian of the Gods, and Loki’s enemy.
Heimdall and Mimir’s Well
Like Odin, Heimdall once went on a journey to acquire tremendous amount of wisdom from Mimir’s well. The well, which is located beneath one of three roots of Yggdrasil (the World Tree), required the payment of a steep price in order to drink from it. Heimdall sacrificed his ear.
Other interesting facts about Heimdall
Due to the solitary nature of his job – i.e. the guardian of the Bifrost – Heimdall did not have much time to interact with his fellow Norse gods. This all-hearing and all-seeing deity was described as absolutely committed to protecting the inhabitants of Asgard from external threats.
According to the poem Hyndluljóð in the Poetic Edda, Heimdall’s Nine Mothers gave birth to him at the edge of the world. The names of Heimdall’s Nine Mothers are Gjalp, Greip, Eistla, Eyrgjafa, Ulfrun, Imd, Angeyja, Atla, and Jarnsaxa.
In the book Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda, Heimdallr is described as “the white As” (the White Æsir). The Norse god, who is also called great and divine, is believed to have been birthed by the nine maiden sisters.
Among all the Æsir Norse gods, Heimdall was the one who had the keenest eye and ear to be able to spot the minutest of change in anything. This ability of his was incomparable across all the Nine Worlds.
In some accounts of the myth, Heimdall is described as extremely committed to his gatekeeping duties that he even slept less than a bird. He remained vigilant and alert, waiting for the onset of Ragnarok.
Heimdall and the events of Ragnarök
The Prose Edda tells us that Ragnarok will begin when the enemies of the Norse gods gather at a field called Vígríðr. Heimdall will immediately sound his horn, Gjallarhorn, informing the gods to ready themselves. The sound from Heimdall’s horn will be heard in all Nine Worlds of the Norse cosmos. Shortly after, the gods will arm themselves to face off against the giants and other malicious agents.
Heimdallr and Loki will engage in a fierce fight before killing each other.
Read More: Top 10 Norse Gods and Goddesses
Heimdall: Fast Facts
Residence: Himinbjörg (“Heaven-fells”)
Mother: Nine Mothers (also known as the Nine Undines)
Epithets:The Whitest, The Most Shining, Warder of the Gods, Most Glittering, Son of Nine Mothers, Guardian of the Gods, Æsir Brightest, Loki’s enemy
Other names: Rigr, Gullintanni, Vindhlér, Hallinskiði
Important symbols: Ram, horn (Gjallarhorn), golden-maned horse (Gulltoppr)